For Arizona, home-court advantage really means something.
That was evident when the Wildcats sold out McKale Center for the 2019 WNIT championship game. And it was again apparent in February, when the UA drew 7,383 fans for its first-ever upset of a top-5 team, Stanford.
It’s not just the number of fans, even though the Wildcats averaged around 6,000 per game last season. It’s what they bring.
Indiana transfer Bendu Yeaney, who was in the stands during the win over Stanford, felt it.
“It was crazy. … I was sitting in the stands, and I wanted to get out there and play,” Yeaney said. “It’s going to be a fun atmosphere.”
The Wildcats will have to wait until 2021 to play in front of their fans. The Pac-12 ruled last week that the men’s and women’s basketball seasons will start Nov. 25, but that fans wouldn’t be allowed until January at the earliest. The league is expected to revisit its decision after New Year’s Day.
Arizona coach Adia Barnes said she hopes to see fans for conference play “just for the environment.”
“For us, it’s a huge advantage here,” she said.
Playing in an empty arena will be quite a different experience for the players.
“I think that we’ve developed into a team where our fans really help us and give us that extra,” forward Cate Reese said. “I mean, it’s just difficult for people to come play here, because our fans are so loud and so energized. It really helps us to win.
“It’ll definitely be something that we have to focus on — we have to energize ourselves and we have to be more communicators, because in the game it’s hard to hear. Now, it’ll be even better to hear each other on the court. I think that will help us, but we definitely will have to work together and create our own energy, which might be a little difficult at the beginning, because we’re not used to it.
Better than ever
Arizona was ranked eighth in ESPN’s latest “way-too-early” poll, released Monday. They dropped one spot from ESPN’s first early poll, released in April.
Barnes said her team’s workouts have reached “another level of intensity” as the Wildcats prepare for nonconference play to start in November. It’s impressive given how long some players went without the game.
“The players haven’t played in so long. I mean, we’re talking some kids in the offseason did not touch the ball for like six months,” Barnes said.
“I thought initially that we’d be way more behind. I think our conditioning was like — everyone’s kind of dying at first, but they’re just, they’re hungry. I think that I think it’s going to be an advantage to us.”
The Wildcats will try to continue to ride the momentum they had before the NCAA Tournament was canceled because of the pandemic.
Barnes said this year’s team “they look better than how they left.”
It starts with senior guard Aari McDonald, who is considered one of the best players in the country.
“She came back with a new sense of urgency and enthusiasm — ready, just the motivation, and grasps everything,” Barnes said. “The whole package, she’s been way more vocal, more of a leader.”
Arizona’s 2021 recruiting class is ranked 15th nationally by ESPN. Five other Pac-12 schools made the Top 25: Stanford (6), USC (7), Oregon State (8), Washington (16) and ASU (23).
ESPN has added a new category — 4.5 stars — and changed player rankings and positions; the website now ranks foreign players, too.
As a result, three Arizona commits have seen their rankings change. Madison Conner is now ranked No. 71 nationally, with Aaronette Vonleh listed 100th.
Anna Gret Asi, an Estonian guard, is listed for the first time as a 4.5-star player.
Be the change
Conversations about racial injustice aren’t a one-off for Barnes and her team.
The coach said her team is creating “different things” with regard to social justice.
“I think that’s cool,” Barnes said. “Whether it’s, ‘Do you want to be the one who’s spearheading the voting? Do you want to take accountability?’ … This generation just posts all this stuff when you’re angry — but no, do something where you can be a difference-maker. …
“If you don’t like the president or (if) you do, do something — make a change. Go vote, make a program, be a trendsetter, be a difference-maker and (have an) impact.
“And for me, I feel like I can do that every day. I have a platform; I have a voice. I empower these young women to be their best and to be different. And I think that’s my way of giving back and helping them be better.
“What are you going to do to change things? What are you going to do to break a cycle? What are you going to do to not deal with these things? That’s more my view on all that stuff.”